Age is But a Number: Swimming Against the Tide

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Yesterday, I received a question from a reader named Dan asking for advice on how to break into higher-level officiating after the age of 30. This is a question I get frequently: I am 30 years old and have been officiating for about 17 years. Up until recently I mainly stayed doing in house youth and adults and some travel hockey.

Now I’m thinking about taking it more seriously and want to see how far up I can go. I’m in shape (can always be better) I know the game and can skate. My question is: at age 30 is there still a chance if I apply myself to get to a high level? Do you have any tips in terms of conditioning I may be able to use?

Thank you for the question, Dan. The short answer to it that there is certainly still a chance. If you otherwise have what takes, being on the “wrong” side of 30 should not be a hindrance or a deterrent. A few narrow-minded folks may consider it swimming against the tide but any assignor worth his salt would not disqualify a good candidate solely for that reason.

Now for the long answer: Some years ago, in the fall of 2003, I had been off the ice for six months. The NHL had me going to games supervising in the AHL.

It was a job I loved. It was not really “work” for me, because you never work a day in your life when you have a natural affinity for what you do. I watched young officials, coached them, taught them, advised them and ranked them to my bosses as they made their way up the ladder toward their goal of skating in the NHL. Along the way, I used much that I had learned from my teachers such as Morrison, McCauley, Pavelich, Ashley, Maschio, Van Deelan, Newell, Van Hellemond, Udvari, Anziano and Christison.

For the most part, I could see the strengths and weaknesses of these young officials. Certainly, I could feel their angst as they went into Providence, Lowell, Worcester, Maine, Syracuse, Springfield, Hartford and Binghamton. These, of course, were the sites where I could drive and watch their games.

That fall, I sat in on a telephone meeting we had regarding the minor league referees. One name came up as a person who might be too old and not worth the investment of time and effort to bring him along. It was interesting in that I had seen this former minor league player — who also played one game in the NHL — work just the week before.

I liked his skating and demeanor. I liked his ability to handle the coaches and his style of communication. He was in his late 20s or maybe 30. To me it didn’t matter. The “age” thing didn’t bother me.

I remember the same age challenge I had when I was trying to break into officiating in 1983. I was chronologically 30 years old until John McCauley magically made me 28 and palatable to the others that had my fate in their hands as my teachers and supervisors.

If you look up various biographical entries on me, you will sometimes find a discrepancy in my birth year. Some places have it as 1953 (which is correct). Others have it as 1955. For some reason, Hockeydb.com lists it as March 24, 1952. For the record, I was born March 21, 1953.

When I was invited to attend the NHL Officials Association’s training camp, I did well and NHL officiating director John McCauley pushed for the League to sign me to a contract.

McCauley told me that there was a catch. When I brought him my birth certificate when I was about to be hired, he looked at my date of birth. Shortly thereafter, he phoned me.

“Paul,” he said, “There’s a mistake on your birth certificate.”

I was puzzled and asked, “What mistake?”

“The date of birth on the document is supposed to say 1955,” John replied.

Not immediately grasping where McCauley was going with this, I started to protest that the date on my birth certificate was correct. He quickly interrupted.

“No,” he said firmly. “If anyone asks, you were born in 1955. We don’t hire anyone over age 30.”

Shortly thereafter, McCauley mailed me the birth certificate with the 3 in 1953 seamlessly changed to a 5. It was impossible to tell it had been fudged. McCauley never told me how he did it and I never asked.

Soon after, to cover the tracks, I also had my driver’s license changed to 1955.

I was friends with a World War I fighter pilot named Eddie Harold and helped take care of him after I got divorced from my first wife. I used to go by his place, take care of him at night, shave him, and take him to the grocery store or wherever he needed to go. He had been my next-door neighbor when I was a kid growing up.

One day, I told him that McCauley had the date on my birth certificate changed. I said that other identification documents still said 1953. Eddie told me his wife, Frances, had worked at the registry of motor vehicles. She had served as the registrar’s assistant.

“I’ll have her fix your date of birth on your license, too,” said Eddie who died at 103 years of age but at the time still held a driver’s license that said he was 90 with no restrictions.

Eddie’s wife made a call for me to a friend at the registry in Roslindale. I met with some man in his office behind his closed door. He asked me what was wrong with the license.

“My birth year is wrong,” I told him. “It’s supposed to be 1955.”

With a few clicks on his big, boxy computer — this was the 1980s, after all — the DOB on my license changed from 1953 to 1955.

The consistent documentation helped me avoid detection. Whenever I rented a car or submitted other receipts to the NHL, my birthyear consistently read as 1955.

After McCauley died in 1989, I think NHL management caught on somehow. I suspect it was because old paperwork from my playing days listed my correct birth year. I received an inquiry from the league. I sent them a copy of the birth certificate that McCauley had fudged, a copy of my driver’s license, and a voter registration card. All of them said 1955. I never heard another word from the NHL about it.

Nobody ever bothered me about it for decades. What’s the difference anyway? At the time I looked like I could still be in my mid-20s and I always stayed in top physical condition. Besides, age discrimination wasn’t the only discrimination that I faced with those people during my career.

Many years later, I had my documentation corrected back to 1953. I was 50 years old when I retired as an active official and took the AHL supervising post for the NHL. Now let’s get back to the story about the 30-year-old officiating prospect whom the NHL wanted to disqualify solely for his age.

With all the other supervisors nodding like a bunch of bobble head dolls, I silently took a contrary stance and decided to do something about it. I went to NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly and requested a meeting. I told him that I wanted to discuss this candidate specifically and the bigger question of how we could get more former players to come over to the officiating side after they finished their playing careers.

My main pitch to Bill was this: “What is the shelf life of anyone in pro sports?”

My idea and reasoning is that we utilize people on a year-to-year basis. We pay them in the current year based on the accolades and achievement that they made in the prior year. Thus, we should be not as concerned about this former player just starting officiating and having “no experience” in that facet of the game.

Instead, we should be looking bringing at a guy who boasted eight years of playing experience into our tight little world of officiating. His hockey instincts from playing at a high level would lessen the learning curve in officiating and ultimately should help him become a better referee because he could relate to the game from different sides once he was taught how to be a referee — the same way that I had once been led by the hand.

Furthermore, in this day and age, setting 30 as a cutoff point was asinine and arbitrary. With the way conditioning and nutrition has progressed, the idea that a 30-year-old healthy man not being able to handle the physical demands of officiating for another 15 or 20 years seemed highly unlikely.

I was very heartened that Bill agreed. This young man got a chance to stay on staff and eventually made it to the NHL and became a quality official. I have other stories about officials presently working in the NHL that were thought early on to be “poor backward skaters” or were in danger of immediate disqualification simply because they were “not big enough.”

Hogwash! I always tried to help those guys, too, get the chance they deserved. I always rooted for the underdog but that was my own story, too. When I started, I was the last dog on the sled team with not much of a view ahead of me.

No doubt, going contrary to the mass opinion of the other supervisors and my officiating director boss and his own hockey ops boss cost me my job. After all, how many hats should I have been wearing and then going outside of the chain of command, that was a big no-no.

Here’s the thing. That chain of command was wrong in its thinking. I knew it and was willing to fight for those guys just as John McCauley and Scotty Morrison fought for me many years ago. I was sort of hockey version of Robin Williams’ portrayal of Adrian Cronauer in Good Morning, Vietnam. In other words, I constantly got myself in trouble with my bosses by being viewed as a maverick in a conformist culture.

It’s OK, though. When I watch games from the NHL and other leagues and see some of my “lost causes” still working, it does my heart good. That is my satisfaction, my reward. I root like hell for those guys and am their biggest fan outside their own families, even if they never knew it.

The point of all this goes back to my original premise for this blog: If you are in shape, can skate, have a feel for the game, people skills and a passion to be an official, go for it!!! I can’t say you’ll end up in the NHL. Few do. You may, however, get a chance to work high level junior hockey, college, or perhaps even international games.

How about if those levels prove to be out of reach? If so, be happy to strive daily to get better and always be reaching to be the best in whatever game and level you work. You will gain a huge amount of personal satisfaction and well-deserved respect from your peers.

I conclude by passing along to you and others the best advice I ever got: “The game you are working today is the most important game being played in the world today. They are paying you, so that means you are a pro. Go out and be the pro we expect you to be. Make the right call because there’s satisfaction enough just in doing that.”

************ Paul Stewart holds the distinction of being the first U.S.-born citizen to make it to the NHL as both a player and referee. On March 15, 2003, he became the first American-born referee to officiate in 1,000 NHL games.

Today, Stewart is an officiating and league discipline consultant for the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) and serves as director of hockey officiating for the ECAC.

The longtime referee heads Officiating by Stewart, a consulting, training and evaluation service for officials. Stewart also maintains a busy schedule as a public speaker, fund raiser and master-of-ceremonies for a host of private, corporate and public events. As a non-hockey venture, he is the owner of Lest We Forget.

In addition to his blogs for HockeyBuzz every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, Stewart writes a hockey column every Wednesday for the Huffington Post.

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